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Feb. 3, 2021

Faculty voice: Scaling technologies for smallholder farmers around the world

Ranjani Krishnan, Ernest W. and Robert W. Schaberg Endowed Chair in Accounting in the Broad College of Business, is a member of the Appropriate Scale Mechanization for Sustainable Intensification Consortium, which received a $2.24 million grant to scale technologies for smallholder farmers in West Africa, Bangladesh and Cambodia.

For many years, I have worked to help small farmers in developing countries grow, thrive and climb out of the poverty cycle.

From my grass-roots work in Western India with “marginal” farmers, who own or are sharecroppers for land under 1 hectare or 2.5 acres in area, where I helped to establish micro-finance societies enabling these farmers to fund asset purchases, to my supervision of a 12-year infrastructure project for the largest dairy in Asia — processing about 1.5 million kilograms of milk daily, procured from 4.5 million milk producers — my background and interests help me to enable millions of farmers to be successful.

Despite these successes, I have been cognizant of the ongoing challenges faced by small farmers in developing countries; There is more work to be done.

This new grant from the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Sustainable Intensification, a USAID program, builds on a previous project focused on developing technologies for farmers in West Africa and South Asia. This second phase of the project aims at scaling the technologies, leading to adoption by a large number of farmers in West Africa, Bangladesh and Cambodia, and having a real impact on these economies.

While I enjoy the “warm glow” from reducing the drudgery and improving incomes of the small farmers, I also have to be a hard-nosed business professional to make this work. I’m bringing my business expertise to this project alongside other faculty from MSU — in our Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering — and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Kansas State University; North Carolina A&T University; and industry partner, Tillers International.

My focus is on identifying technical, economic, policy and broader societal barriers to scaling and proposing ways to address them. While in concept, these technologies can improve output and productivity for farmers, the main issue in scaling is creating a robust self-sustaining business model. It should make economic sense for every participant in the entire value chain, starting from the farmer household members, equipment manufacturers and suppliers, to the buyers of the agricultural commodities.

In addition, these value chain participants should have the necessary knowledge base and technical and business management skills to be effective entrepreneurs and reliable business partners. In developing country contexts, unexpected challenges may arise from lack of basic infrastructure and access to credit, inadequate property rights and inequitable gender impacts. 

Ultimately, the goal is that our interdisciplinary team will facilitate local expertise to scale up technologies, improve livelihoods, empower women and progress towards a sustainable food production system.

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